The US Constitution

A More Perfect Union

Article 1 - Legislative Branch

Established by Article I of the Constitution, the Legislative Branch consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which together form the United States Congress. The Constitution grants Congress the sole authority to enact legislation and declare war, the right to confirm or reject many Presidential appointments, and substantial investigative powers.

The House of Representatives is made up of 435 elected members, divided among the 50 states in proportion to their total population. The presiding officer is the Speaker of the House, elected by the Representatives. He or she is third in the line of succession to the Presidency - currently John Boehner.

Members of the House are elected every two years and must be 25 years of age, a U.S. citizen for at least seven years, and a resident of the state (but not necessarily the district) they represent.

The House has several powers assigned exclusively to it, including the power to initiate revenue bills, impeach federal officials, and elect the President in the case of an electoral college tie.

The Senate is composed of 100 Senators, 2 for each state. Since 1913, they have been elected to six-year terms by the people of each state. Senator's terms are staggered so that about one-third of the Senate is up for reelection every two years. Senators must be 30 years of age, U.S. citizens for at least nine years, and residents of the state they represent.

The Vice President of the United States serves as President of the Senate and may cast the decisive vote in the event of a tie in the Senate.

The Senate has the sole power to confirm those of the President's appointments that require consent, and to ratify most treaties. The Senate also tries impeachment cases for federal officials referred to it by the House.

In order to pass legislation and send it to the President for his signature, both the House and the Senate must pass the same bill by majority vote. If the President vetoes a bill, they may override his veto by passing the bill again in each chamber with at least two-thirds of each body voting in favor.

How a Bill Becomes a Law

The Legislative Process

Congress has been to expand the powers of the federal government by the necessary and proper clause (a.k.a. elastic clause, basket clause, sweeping clause, coefficient clause) in Article 1 of the US Constitution. This clause states that congress can "...make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof." This clause grants congress the power to make all laws necessary and proper to the well-being of the country. This is the process in which a bill becomes a law.

The first step in the legislative process is the introduction of a bill to Congress. Anyone can write it, but only members of Congress can introduce legislation. Some important bills are traditionally introduced at the request of the President, such as the annual federal budget.

After being introduced, a bill is referred to the appropriate committee for review. There are 17 Senate committees, with 70 subcommittees, and 23 House committees, with 104 subcommittees. The committees are not set in stone, but change in number and form with each new Congress as required for the efficient consideration of legislation. Each committee oversees a specific policy area, and the subcommittees take on more specialized policy areas.

A bill is first considered in a subcommittee, where it may be accepted, amended, or rejected entirely. If the members of the subcommittee agree to move a bill forward, it is reported to the full committee, where the process is repeated again. Throughout this stage of the process, the committees and subcommittees call hearings to investigate the merits and flaws of the bill. They invite experts, advocates, and opponents to appear before the committee and provide testimony, and can compel people to appear using subpoena power if necessary.

If the full committee votes to approve the bill, it is reported to the floor of the House or Senate, and the majority party leadership decides when to place the bill on the calendar for consideration. If a bill is particularly pressing, it may be considered right away. Others may wait for months or never be scheduled at all.

When the bill comes up for consideration, the House has a very structured debate process. Each member who wishes to speak only has a few minutes. In the Senate, debate on most bills is unlimited — Senators may speak to issues other than the bill under consideration during their speeches, and any amendment can be introduced. Senators can use this to filibuster bills under consideration, a procedure by which a Senator delays a vote on a bill by refusing to stand down. Once debate is over, the votes of a simple majority passes the bill.

A bill must pass both houses of Congress before it goes to the President for consideration. The members of the committee produce a final version of the bill. Each chamber then votes again to approve the final version. The final text is then enrolled by either the Clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate, and presented to the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate for their signatures. The bill is then sent to the President.

When receiving a bill from Congress, the President has several options. If the President agrees substantially with the bill, he or she may sign it into law, and the bill is then printed in the Statutes. If the President believes the law to be bad policy, he may veto it and send it back to Congress. Congress may override the veto with a two-thirds vote of each chamber, at which point the bill becomes law and is printed.

There are two other options that the President may exercise. If Congress is in session and the President takes no action within 10 days, the bill becomes law. If Congress adjourns before 10 days are up and the President takes no action, then the bill dies and Congress may not vote to override. This is called a pocket veto, and if Congress still wants to pass the legislation, they must begin the entire process anew.

How a bill becomes law School House Rock

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Article II - The Executive Branch

In Article II of the Constitution, the president's qualifications and powers are detailed. In order to be considered for the office, a presidential candidate must be at least 35 years old, a natural-born U.S. citizen, and have at least 14 years of residence in the United States.

In order for American government to work, cooperation among the three branches is necessary. The nation's chief executive, the president, is the head of the executive branch. The president is the manager or director of the federal government. The president sees that the government runs smoothly and that the laws of the land are enforced and obeyed. He promises to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.

The president and vice president serve for a term of four years and can be re-elected to a second term. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the only president to be elected more than twice. He won the presidency four times but died shortly into his last term. The Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1951, limiting a president to two terms.

At the beginning of each session of Congress, the president must report on the State of the Union. The president gives his opinion, in this important speech, of how the country is doing and presents his ideas about what needs to be done in the coming year. The work of government moves along smoothly when the president and Congress cooperate. Otherwise, very little can be accomplished -- this is called "gridlock."

The president works out treaties or agreements with other nations concerning trade and the aid that the United States gives to needy countries. He appoints ambassadors to represent the United States in foreign countries. The president also serves as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. He can send them anywhere in the world to protect our interests or to keep peace in troubled places.

Many people help the president manage the business of the executive branch. His most important advisers are the members of the Cabinet. Over the years, the size of the Cabinet has changed. George Washington's first Cabinet had just four secretaries. The modern Cabinet has fifteen departments.

Article III - The Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court heads the judicial branch of the United States government. It is the only court established by the Constitution. Decisions made by the Supreme Court are usually of national importance. "Equal Justice under Law" is the motto of the Supreme Court. The wording of the Constitution is complex, so it must be studied and examined carefully. When questions concerning particular laws arise in lower courts, the justices who make up the Supreme Court are responsible for explaining and interpreting the Constitution.

All of the other courts in the United States must follow the ruling or the decision made by the justices of the Supreme Court. The Constitution also gives the Supreme Court the power to judge whether federal, state, and local governments are acting within the law. The Supreme Court can also decide if a president's action is unconstitutional.

The decisions of the Supreme Court are absolute and final; in contrast, the decisions and judgments reached in lower courts may be appealed or questioned. Thousands of requests for rulings reach the Supreme Court each year. Fewer than one hundred fifty are actually considered and ruled upon.

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. It has a chief justice, or head judge, and eight associate justices. The justices are appointed by the president and approved by a vote of the Senate. The justices serve for life unless they choose to retire. Their job is to interpret laws passed by Congress.

Since our government was established, more than one hundred justices have served on the Court, and until recently, all were men. Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman named to the Supreme Court. She was appointed in 1981. Known as a swing vote through much of her Supreme Court service, Sandra Day O'Connor retired January 31, 2006. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was seated in 1993 as the second woman.

Lobbyist and Special Interest Groups

What is lobbying?

  1. Lobbying (also lobby) is attempting to influence decisions made by officials in the government, most often legislators or members of agencies.

Is lobbying bad?

"Lobbying enforces the democratic debate and is an important component of a healthy democracy. Lobbying is a good thing, if it is practiced in an ethical way." MisterMarpe

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What is lobbying and why is it important? - The American League of Lobbyists
Three Branches Rap - Smart Songs

Article IV - Relations Among the States

Each state must honor the laws and authority of other states.

States must honor extradition orders (orders to return a suspected criminal)

Fugitive slave clause - States must return runaway slaves to their owners

Article IV - New States and Territories

New states cannot be formed without the consent of Congress.

Guarantee Clause - Each state is guaranteed a representative democratic government.

Article V - Amending the Constitution

The Constitution can be amended, or changed.

1) Proposed by either 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress or a *national convention of 2/3 of the states.

2) Proposed amendment must be ratified by 3/4 of the states either in Congress or in the **state legislatures.

*This method has never been used

**This method was used only once for the 21st amendment

Formal Amendment Process
The Amendment Process

Article VI - National Supremacy

Supremacy Clause - The Constitution and federal law are supreme, or highest, law of the land.

Federal and state officials must swear allegiance to the Constitution. They also cannot be required to adopt or practice any specific religion.

Article VII - Ratification of the Constitution

The Constitution had to be ratified by 9 of the original 13 states. Rhode Island and North Carolina waited until after the Bill of Rights was added to ratify. The Constitution went into effect April 30, 1789.